Apocalypse World

Short Campaign Pacing: Paul Holds Court 1/3

Paul Taliesin​ asked me in a thread last week about how I went about wrapping up our latest Apocalypse World mini-campaign in a satisfying way. I meant to post sooner but I’ve been thinking about it a lot. To be honest, I’m not sure I can point at specific techniques!\

It’s about running every session like a one-shot. I find AW and most PbtA games are especially good for this vibe: lots of internal conflict, not much structural prep to (even unconsciously) protect from disruption. Guess I’d start by just saying that: run every session like it was a one-shot, satisfying and whole unto itself.

Of course if you know it’s gonna go longer, you have additional tools at your disposal. Here’s what I came up with after noodling on it for a week:

* Apocalypse World RAW is really good for setup (create characters, set up Hx, follow them around their lives). I’ve expanded on that a little, mostly from experience: Hx questions always come with a little more context, and I draw out one of my big full-table relationship maps during character creation. The Hx context is how I fill the r-map out with more NPCs and implied near past events/near future urgencies. And that’s what turns my r-map into a situation map. (Oh god another smap tease, I need to get this written.)

* As NPCs get introduced, I start them as probable allies/friendlies, unless everyone knows there’s beef due to the Hx questions. I find it useful to imply a status quo early on, so when it comes falling down it feels catastrophic, and not just a continuation of life in chaos.

* The Maelstrom is my main tool for setting emotional hooks and really dredging around in the players’ psyches. This is purely a technique thing and I wish I could really lay out a point-by-point plan on how to work this well. Hm. One thing I’d do is look at something unstable on the smap connected to the character, and ask them opinions adjunct to the connection, rather than on-the-nose.

Example: our Battlebabe puts his babe-ness to use hustling crash spaces and food everywhere he goes. He has zero loyalty to anyone but himself. So he starts the game “attached” to the local hardholder, Hugo, as a sexy killbot who never gets off his ass and actually kills. So when things start to slide sideways, he finds it useful to seduce a member of the biker gang, and then almost immediately seduces another hardholder the next session, leaving the biker chick and other NPCs in his wake.

So the trail of broken hearts, that’s kind of a front, right? I don’t explicitly make it so, it’s just a human complication of the battlebabe bull-in-china-shopping his way through people’s lives.

At some point he Opens His Brain, can’t remember why. The Maelstrom wants to know how he’s gonna disentangle himself from Mice, the new hardholder he’s hooked up with. She’s been super nice and protective, so first I ask questions about how nice and protective she is toward him. Stuff like “When was the last time you felt as safe as you do with Mice, now?” It’s a way to hard-frame the player as well as the character, you know?

I think I’m not explaining this very well. What I’m getting at is the Maelstrom stuff is a way past the player’s defenses, which in this case is arms-length authorial play.

So later when he opens his brain again, the line of questioning is more like, “so you’re going to have to leave Mice eventually, right? I mean you never stick around. You think you can get away from her if she’s alive?” All this in service to creating emotional investment in that story aspect.

Why go through all this? Why all the unapologetic mind-fucking and gaslighting? So that, once the hooks are set, any given moment in that story element’s arc can be brought to a high-tension climax.

But this is all storygaming 101 stuff. Awareness of player investment and where those investments lie, turning the metronome a little higher on those things, all that. I’m just saying Open Your Brain is an astonishingly good tool to put toward that.

* Depend on the magic of 7-9s. They’re magic! If you’ve been building things up, your 7-9s are, IMO, where you can create well timed emotional climaxes. Because if it’s too soon, right? You can dial the “yes, buuuut” to just continue spooling out that thread OR you can cut the thread right there. I don’t use misses for that, although I do tend to feed misses right into my fronts’ clocks if we’re on a deadline.

* Oh yeah, build out your fronts after that first walking-around session. Give ’em all clocks. It’s good prep.

I started my game out knowing in advance it’d be a 5-6 session long game. My players knew it as well, and that helped shape their advancement chase. Knowing the game is gonna end fast, I think, put their minds more solidly on their advancement (highlighted stats) as well as more consequential advancement choices.

I’ve never directly heard this but a popular ghost story told at Apocalypse World camp is that Vincent or Meg or someone once said the game gets “good” at six sessions. My best guess is that refers to advancement tempo, which looks to be around once per session, and that the second advancement set is where you get the opportunity to retire in safety. Might be true, dunno, but in our game at least the ghost story came true: being able to make choices from that second set did alter the tone of the game quite a lot.

If I was going to deliberately plan a 3-shot — say, for a con or something, Fri/Sat/Sun slots — I would probably come to the table with a firm setting pitch, maybe three fronts already cooking, maybe even a check or two already on those clocks representing recent history. And I would, as GM, highlight “weird” no matter what anyone else wanted to highlight, and look for natural (seeming) opportunities for the characters to Open Their Brain. Sitting around wondering what to do next? Curious about what a Front is up to? Walking away mad at someone? The triggers for Open are defined by the GM and that’s some powerful black magic.

I might also hand out, say, two advances right out of the gate. That gets them closer to their second set, and I believe you can get them there if you’re super generous and not weird about your stat highlight choices. Let the battlebabe be cool, let the Savvyhead be sharp, etc. You’re really not gonna have the time to let the players settle into their roles such that other players might want to see other facets (the cool Brainer, the sharp Gunlugger).

This is all pretty meander-y, sorry. I really have been thinking about your question all week! And I can’t really point at any specific techniques beyond setting up interesting threads so they can be either extended or brought to a conclusion whenever you want.

Oh, last one. You probably already know it, don’t be insulted that I’m bringing it up: do the denouement thing at the end of your last session. Where did each character end up afterward? It’s a great post facto technique that creates a sense of closure in everyone, regardless of how up in the air things felt when you can to call it.

Next up: The Magic of 7-9

19 thoughts on “Apocalypse World”

  1. I saw this post come up in my feed just as I was getting into the shower, so I spent the shower thinking about it without having read it.

    “He’s going to say it is all about the magic of dealing with 7-9 roll results, right?” is what my shower-self thought.

  2. Paul Beakley, this is some good stuff! Not as meandering as it might have felt to write, in fact: it’s a pretty good overview of a lot of useful techniques.

  3. I have followup questions, though:

    If you’ve talked about the “magic of the 7-9” before, that would explain why it seems like you just brushed over that bit.

    What exactly do you mean? How can you use a 7-9 outcome to “close a thread”, for instance?

    We all know they’re great (“yes, but” is always an effective story gaming tool), but what are you talking about here, specifically?

    A couple of examples might really help.

  4. My second question is about “open your brain”.

    I love your take on playing the maelstrom not just as a “twisted psychiatrist”, but even more so, as a gaslighter or psychological manipulator. Someone whispering terrible ideas in the character/player’s head, and making them true (or possibly true) just by being that voice.

    Some tactics which are reprehensible in real life could make for some really good story gaming techniques here, and your notes on “pushing” that move are spot-on.

    Again, though, my curiosity is about the specifics. How do you do this, in actual play? Do you give the maelstrom an actual voice, so that you “speak” to the player in-character and have a conversation like that? Or do you use it as simply an excuse to have an out-of-character chat about what the character might be feeling or thinking?

    Something in-between, most likely. Still, framing this naturally in play is not super obvious, so I’d love to get a sense of the specifics of how you do this – what you say, at the table.

    Fantastic post! Far more than I expected, and very timely, as I’m running a short campaign at the moment. Cheers, thanks for the response!

  5. Ask questions. Ask them what it looks like when they open their brain, what they do to reach that state and what has occurred in the past.

    I’m not saying have the players make everything up. I don’t like saying, “You open your brain, what does the Psychic Maelstrom look like?”

    I’m saying, “What does Brainer do when she opens her brain?”

    Maybe they mentioned that they came from some kind of government instillation with barracks full of psychics. “What is the worst thing you’ve seen happen to a brainer who was careless with the maelstrom?”

    Ask good questions that give you a shape and fill in those details.

  6. Judd Karlman, those are great questions to establish what the fiction of opening your brain, and the character’s experience of it, is like. I’m curious specifically about Paul Beakley’s practice of using that to dig deeper into the player/character’s attitudes, plans, and feelings.

  7. To add: it’s the crossover there, between the player and the character (the lines blur with this kind of question) that makes it tricky (and fruitful!). I like the example in the post, and I’m curious what it actually looks like in practice to get to that part of the conversation.

  8. Excellent! However: you also have do one for your “situation map”. (Perhaps you have a picture of an old one, as well? If not, just describe how you make it and how you use it.)

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